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Ask HN: Getting started in biology with a software background, Hacker News

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I’m in my 5th year of a chemical biology PhD and I ‘ m looking to potentially move into computer science / data science (been programming for 15 years) after I graduate. Maybe we can just switch? I work with CRISPR for my project.

In all seriousness, you are going to need a PhD if you want totrulyunderstand all of the background of the field. Human biology / biochemistry is just about the most complex thing humans have ever studied. It would surely be easier to just find people with the requisite skill sets.

Even if you just want to start a company, I feel that it would be really hard to pick out a scientific direction / what your company is going to do, without a rigorous scientific background



>just about the most complex thing humans have ever studied

The question is if the methods are complex. AFAIK computational biology involves statistics, statistics and statistics. The systems themselves are incredibly complex and interconnected, but the abstraction levels of the math involved are not incredibly high.



Sure, I guess my wording wasn’t clear. It is the system itself that is complex, not the equations or statistics we use



Can you explain your reasoning behindneed a PhD? It makes sense to me why you shouldlearna lot to understand a complex field, but I fail to see why you shouldalsospend a few years researching a very narrow subfield … wouldn’t it be better to be a generalist and be able to apply your knowledge widely, as opposed to only understanding a tiny sliver of the whole field?



Presumably, this hypothetical biotech startup is going to be focused on some narrow niche of CRISPR technology, so being a specialist is exactly what’s required in my mind. If the OP just wants to learn about CRISPR he could probably do a masters or even a year or two of self study. I find it very unlikely that they would be able to come up with something novel and marketable without even more hands on time.



Yeah I’m not sure I agree you need a full-blown PhD just to understand this stuff. Some-hands on work, definitely. I would say that you need a PhD to be taken seriously as a leader on the science-side of a biotech company though.



1 for this is a PhD level thing. The science and technology is not at the sort of commodity level where you do a masters and you’re done really. A good approach is to just get in the face of a lot of lab people working on new tech / IP who could really use software support for what they are doing in an area of ​​trial and error that could otherwise scale. But if you are thinking biotech with lab, you need huge seed investment to begin with for the lab, unless you are spinning out of academia.



There are two areas where you can jump in more easily with a CS / software background. Many companies are building informatics / analysis pipelines. That’s likely closer to what you know and you can pick up enough biology along the way.

Alternatively there’s a lot of algorithm / classifier development you could jump into.

It’s usually easier going the other way though. Biology is a complex beast.



I second this. I did an internship in bioinformatics on gcp. I know a lot about data science, python, CS, cloud, etc. But basically nothing about biology, biochem, cancer, etc. In one summer I learned a ton about biology and I really soaked a lot of key concepts from my biologist coworkers.

But, the whole time I felt like I had no idea what I was doing because all I could understand was that these strings represent sequences of DNA and they come out of different machines like illumina or nanopore machines and theres formats like fastq and fasta and vcf. But I felt like without any background in biology I didn’t really understand what I was doing or what this data could be used for. All I understood was how to move it around as if its any other structured data. So I feel like the best way to jump in would be a combination of studying ur basic biology and genetics concepts in ur subfield of interest then finding a bioinformatics place to jump in and start learning on the applied side.

I will say that its fun to be the programming guy helping out the biologists its really fulfilling. But biology is a totally different beast to CS, under every stone theres another subfield and new terms to learn and concepts to understand.



To be more specific, the first company I worked at had three co- founders; an algorithms person, a functional biology expert, and someone with experience in building software teams. The first two came from academia.



>I’m interested in learning more about the skills needed to start a biotech company, but I’m lacking the masters degree in biology. What skills are actually needed to get into the field

You will need two basic skills

1) The skill to understand that trying to manipulate by yourself a delicate and exquisitely calibrated machine without knowing what you do, is a bad idea.

There is a fair possibility that you end with either bad products like a method for pursuing suspects based in DNA of a chunk of cut hair (made entirely of cheratin that does not have any DNA). Incorrect biological explanations or a very expensive machine broken are also probable results

2) The skill to hire a trained biologist that will do the job



Go find a biotech company hiring software engineers where the biochemists are in the same room / building. Get a job there. Get to know biochemists and ask them about their work and work problems, listen to their talks, read a lot. Get mentored by a PhD in the field at the company.

When a new biotech product team is getting formed get yourself on the project.

Whatever you do, don’t compete with biologists …. there’s just too many of them and the lab skills are valuable but in abundant supply.



I transitioned into cancer immunotherapy research after Computer Science grad school. Biology is a mess and it will take several years to get up to speed on any one research area. The best options are either grad school or finding a job which doesn’t initially require a lot of bio background but provides the opportunity to learn. It’s also worth checking out local biohacker spaces, they can teach some basic techniques but you’ll hit a ceiling quickly. To really “start a biotech company” you’ll really need to spend a long time outside your comfort zone.


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